Eczema, Asthma, Allergy: What does the Hygiene Hypothesis tell us?
The hygiene hypothesis essentially talks about the lack of early exposure to – microbes, parasites, infectious disease… – leading to a miseducated immune system manifesting in things like eczema, asthma, food allergies, MS, Crohns… you name it. Essentially, at its core the hygiene hypothesis believes we have evolved to co-exist with these things in a way that is akin to outsourcing some of our immune function to other living organisms – and when we don’t get them/get exposed to them, our systems’ go awry.
I like this idea. It makes sense to me and others (even world renowned Dr Li discusses epigenetics & microbial exposure in our interview). I tend to agree with this – and then of course thing that all the toxins we’re exposed to as well – create a perfect allergic storm.
So I am reading An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases penned by Moises Velasquez-Manoff. At this point, I’m about a third of the way through. The book is truly amazing in its take on the evolution of much of the human immune system. It has, for a brief moment, spun my perspective on the allergies that my son has. It’s as if my son’s body has evolved to negotiate a world that suddenly shifted over the last 50-100 years. As if allergies and asthma were not a disease but a trait developed over millions of years of co-existence with micro-organisms, parasites, bacteria, fungi… and now suddenly they’ve been removed: through hygiene, vaccination, modernity….
What’s briefly refreshing about this perspective is the idea that these things that we have been told are disease, are really beautiful biological partners in maneuvers that have found themselves on the dance floor alone. A sort of “it takes two to tango,” that is now clumsily performed by one. So it’s been nice to have a different glimpse of this stuff that has been my obsession since the diagnosis – as not disease.
It’s painted a vision for me that if we lived in the world our bodies have honed themselves over the millenia to expect, one where we were rife with an onslaught of ‘old friends’ as it were… parasites, bacteria and viruses that span TB to polio, it’s completely possible that my son would be the shining example of robust strength & health – as opposed to the kid with the inhaler, benedryl, and epi slung over his shoulder in a carry bag gauging whether or not the pollen level is too high to play outside, or if the person about to shake his hand was recently eating peanuts… Oh the joy this brief glimpse of what could be brings.
The depressing, or disheartening side of things, is that Mr Velasquez-Manoff talks about a window of opportunity for molding or shifting the immune system is most open (he claims only open) during childhood. So the bacterial & parasite partners can only prevent allergy/asthma if they make an appearance in childhood before, or within a tiny time-frame of exposure to, say ragweed or peanuts. And that once we reach adulthood, our immune systems are pretty much set in their ways. Miss this window of youthful malleability and your basically left with managing a skewed immune system. Boo.
He does however, offer glimmers of hope. Not only, does he embark on self-infecting with helminths and discuss his experience (Mr Velasquez-Manoff himself has asthma and autoimmune alopecia), but he also goes on to talk about the bacteria, Mycobacterium Vaccae. This soil & cow dung dwelling inhabitant brought to brief fame by the Stanfords in the early 1970′s supposedly corrected Mrs Stanford’s Raynaud’s syndrome (autoimmune disease). Better than that though, apparently
“M. Vacae injections helped their daughter’s asthma…”